What Fred Rogers Teaches Us About Moral Leadership
“This past month a documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Mister (Fred) Rogers was released. Documentaries rarely make it to the big screen and do not tend to do well at the box office. After just two weeks, the film has grossed nearly $2 million dollars. There have been lots of articles speculating why it is doing so well. I think we find a central clue from Morgan Neville the director. In making the film, he said he was interested in asking “ questions about moral leadership .”
In the 1970’s, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was threatened with cancelation, mothers across the country walked door-to-door collecting funds to keep it afloat. No one asked them to. Certainly not Mister Rogers himself. They did it because the thought of him going off the air was so appalling, to them and their children, that they galvanized themselves into action.
We like to think that real leaders inspire others to previously unreachable heights. In this case, the values that Fred Rogers inspired in his viewers drove regular people to exhibit passionate, unsolicited behaviors that led to a very substantial and non-regular outcome… Congressional funding for years of public television.
Moral leadership is tied to virtue. There are hundreds of virtues, including patience, decisiveness, conviction, humility, self-reliance, unity, engagement, mindfulness, joyfulness, sacrifice, and so on. Moral leadership begins when one person exhibits one or more virtues at an unconventional level. This gives rise to something scientists call idealized influence. The virtuous behavior inspires unconventional outcomes, including regular people exhibiting “passionate, unsolicited behaviors….”